The Blair Witch Project

It’s hard to overstate the impact of The Blair Witch Project. These days, movies like it are a dime a dozen. Online viral marketing? Pretty passé. But fifteen years ago, a found footage movie marketed primarily through the Internet was not only radical, it was revolutionary. On a budget of just $25,000, the film grossed $250 million worldwide, making it the most profitable film in the history of cinema.

For those of us who were lucky enough to be a part of it, the impact of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez‘s film is a door into our own pasts. For those who may not have been there — who didn’t experience lining up for screenings and the confusion over what was real and what wasn’t — the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has created a short little documentary about how The Blair Witch Project changed movies forever.

Below, watch a video about The Blair Witch Project history and read a first hand account of what it was like on the ground floor.

Here’s the Blair Witch Project history video, via Academy Originals. Thanks to The Dissolve for the heads up.

That video brings me back…

In 1999, I was in my freshman year at New York University. Movie-centric internet sites like this were just starting to bubble up thanks to anticipation for Star Wars Episode I. Every day, I’d read about that movie and other hot, buzzy movies that were coming soon.

I don’t remember where I first read about The Blair Witch Project, probably on Ain’t It Cool News, but I was instantly intrigued. The film had crazy buzz out of Sundance but no one was sure what this movie was. Was this actually a snuff film? Was it fake? We honestly didn’t know. Early online search engines didn’t help; there was almost no information available.

It must have been about April when the film finally made it to NYU. I remember walking into the Loews Village 7 on 3rd Avenue totally blind outside of what I saw online. The movie started and instantly I was riveted. By the end, I was glued to my seat with fear.

Walking back to my dorm room (Weinstein Hall on University Place) was fine. But when I got back to my room, no one was there. I was alone and started to freak out. “He was standing in the corner,” I remember thinking to myself over and over. To this day, I’ve never been as scared by a film and especially not after the lights came up.

I began to spread the word that The Blair Witch Project was something special. Friends were intrigued and, by this time, I knew it was fiction rather than documentary. Nevertheless, I championed the film. On July 16, 1999 (at midnight), when the film opened down the road at the Angelika Film Center on Houston Street, I lined up with my friends Greg and Steve to be part of the experience. There, we met Myrick and Sánchez and here are some pictures to prove it.

Those were taken outside the Angelika on the opening night of The Blair Witch Project.

That weekend, the film grossed an impressive $1.5 million on just 27 screens. A few weeks later, on just over a thousand screens, it grossed $29 million, bested only by Julia Roberts’ latest, on its way to film history.

But here’s where the story takes a weird turn. I was back to see the film again when it opened wide on July 30, 1999. The Destinta Theater in Newburgh, NY underestimated the demand for the film and cancelled screenings of two other movies to open up screens for The Blair Witch Project. I’d never experienced that before and, suffice to say, the atmosphere was electric.

When I walked out of the theater, something had changed. The buzz wasn’t there. The marketing machine had eaten up the film and spit it out. There was no mystery. By this time the actors had been on late night TV, magazine covers, and everyone was expecting the second coming of Christ. Instead they got an 81 minute video projected on film. Cries of disappointment were heard in the hallway and out into the parking lot. For weeks and months after, people backlashed against the film, deeming it amateurish and overhyped. To this day, one of my friends gives me crap for recommending it to him. It was 15 years ago.

But 15 years can be a crazy thing. Now there’s Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield, The Last Exorcist and so many others. None of which would have happened without The Blair Witch Project. As for the impact of the Internet? You’re reading this, aren’t you? Maybe the hype ruined the film for some people, but not for me. I rode it like a perfect wave and it became a part of who I am as a film fan.

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